Local aviation, yesterday, erupted in protest and attendant disruption of flight services over the demise of an Air Traffic Control Officer (ATCO), Aniekan Effiong. Effiong died on Monday for reasons not unconnected with deplorable infrastructure and poor condition of service at airports in the country.
The partial strike by Effiong’s colleagues, which began yesterday, grounded Tuesday morning flights for about five hours, with airport terminals bedlam and airlines’ schedule-plan for the day in total mess.
The aggrieved workers, under the aegis of Nigerian Air Traffic Controllers’ Association (NATCA), said the “warning” strike was to register their displeasure on the parlous condition on ground, which has continued to burnout personnel and led to the demise of nine members.
About three years ago, The Guardian reported the poor condition of control towers, aeronautical facilities and the risk faced by ATCOs, among others that report for duty at major airports in the country. Besides some airports like Kaduna, Katsina and Kano not having proper control towers, many others have no basic infrastructure like chairs, safety gadgets and convenience for workers to be comfortable.
Following an emergency meeting that rounded off in the wee hours of Tuesday, NATCA declared the demise of Effiong as “avoidable” and due to “unavailability of an operational vehicle to move him to a hospital in record time”.
They observed that Effiong was the ninth of their members that died in active service in two years, all “due to stress-related health complications, which seem associated with poor working conditions and inadequate staffing.”
They said following several appeals to management, other stakeholders and inactions by appropriate managers, “ATCOs are embarking on a three hours flow control for two days, November 23-24, 2021 from 0600UTC to 0900UTC to register our displeasure and call the attention of relevant authorities and the public to quickly address our concerns without further delay.”
“Flow control” regulates the rate at which aircraft are allowed to enter airport or airspace, often to avoid a bottleneck.
The delay measure, however, caused a total shut down of operations yesterday morning. Until about 10 a.m., none of the airlines was able to operate the first set of flights for the day.
A visit to the Murtala Muhammed Airport Terminal II (MMA2) and the General Aviation Terminal (GAT), both in Lagos, showed a high volume of passengers, all agonising the disruption around 9 a.m.
The Chief Operating Officer of one of the airlines told The Guardian that the disruption was rather unfortunate.
“We all sympathise with the aviation family for the loss. But I expect that the operators and the travelling public deserved to be notified about the protest. Early notification would have helped us to handle the customers well enough, rather than have all come to the airport desk.
“I have at least 12 flights between the hours of 6:30 and 11 a.m. daily. Only two have departed at 10 a.m. As passengers are on the queue, so too are aircraft on long queues just to get out of Lagos. Other routes waiting to be served are all in trouble. It is just pathetic.” he said.
Media and Communication Manager of Dana Air, Kingley Ezenwa, confirmed the disruption and appealed against another disruption today (Wednesday).
“It is very difficult communicating four to five hours of delay to customers that have come to board. It is a serious problem on our hands. Having this another day will be disastrous,” Ezenwa said.
The Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), however, said normalcy has been restored, as the flow control, earlier embarked upon by ATCOs “has been suspended” to pave way for a follow-up meeting between NAMA management, Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the association, scheduled to hold later today.
The ATCOs in a communiqué, signed by their president, Abayomi Agoro, and his secretary, Felix Agbonlahor, made 11 demands from NAMA.
They include the provision of dedicated operational vehicles for Air Traffic Control at Abuja Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano airports, and to any other airport where an ATC operational vehicle is critically needed.
They requested that ATC Operational rooms be provided with adequate and quality ATC operational chairs and headsets. That at least 500 ATCOs be recruited to address the critical dearth in ATC manpower within the next two years starting with 70 recruits within the next three months.
They added that the NAMA management should approve and implement a 500 per cent upward review of the annual ATC medical allowance to enable ATCOs carry out comprehensive medical assessment among others. That all Air Traffic controllers be enrolled in an enhanced comprehensive health and life insurance scheme that will meet their health needs.
Similarly, they asked that standard medical emergency kits be provided at all ATC units and a yearly Health Safety Environment (HSE) training programs for ATCOs be conducted. That all ATC communication facilities and equipment, most especially, the VHF radios and SATCOM links be holistically rectified in order to address the perennial communication problems encountered in Nigerian airspace.
“Consequent on the above submissions, the association gave an ultimatum of two weeks for the above demands to be addressed. Otherwise, we cannot guarantee industrial harmony. We want to advise all our members to remain calm as no stone would be left unturned until our demands are fully addressed,” the communiqué read in part.
Agoro earlier complained about the dearth of personnel and attendant pressure on available staffers.
“The work environment is becoming more deplorable. As I am talking to you now, some airports do not even have functional equipment. Even Kaduna does not have a control tower. What they are using (as a control tower) is a watch room for firefighters. It was not built for that purpose (control tower) and we have been calling on the government to do something. In Sokoto, once it rains, controllers need umbrellas to sit in the control tower to work. What is that?
“Some of the control towers attached to the terminal buildings were ceded to FAAN while those standing alone were for NAMA. We have approached the two organisations, but NAMA will be waiting for FAAN to put it in order, while FAAN will say it is NAMA staff that is working there. It is because of that bureaucracy that controllers continue to suffer.
“We are still battling with terrestrial radio frequency, communication here and there. Calabar airport is there. There is no airport you will go to today that you would say things are working 80 per cent. Do you know that if you get to some control towers, we have to beg for an ordinary chair to sit for controllers that will work six to 12 hours? These people have to climb several stairs because elevators are not there or don’t work. It’s not ideal.
“We should have at least 600 to 650 ATCOs because there is no point having just one controller on duty in a tower. It is dangerous and we must say it. While a station like Kaduna has less than six ATCOs, definitely they will work only one staffer per shift, but I can tell you that NAMA has close to 4,000 staff.
“Even in some departments, you see them drawing a roster. ‘If you come this week, don’t come next week.’ The issue is that they have brought so many people into the agency who are not meaningfully engaged. All they just do is to sit down, and we are talking about a critical area where we have gaps,” Agoro said.
Agoro’s deputy, Ahmed Bello, hinted that Katsina tower is one of the most difficult to work in.
“In Katsina, where you have a one-man watch, there is no facility for him to ease himself. But he is a human being. If he descends the tower, he is in breach of his professional ethics. So, what do you expect that person to do? Kano has a fine building, but that is all. Unfortunately, the facilities inside are failing.
“If the system demands that I put my whole life into it, I expect the system to provide me with the working tools to be able to do that. I’ve not spent close to two years ab initio in the training school just to qualify as a professional and be frustrated by a system that does not want me to give my best,” Bello said.